Springs ecosystem classification

Lawrence E. Stevens, Edward R. Schenk, Abraham E. Springer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Springs ecosystems are globally abundant, geomorphologically diverse, and bio-culturally productive, but are highly imperiled by anthropogenic activities. More than a century of scientific discussion about the wide array of ecohydrological factors influencing springs has been informative, but has yielded little agreement on their classification. This lack of agreement has contributed to the global neglect and degradation of springs ecosystems by the public, scientific, and management communities. Here we review the historical literature on springs classification variables, concluding that site-specific source geomorphology remains the most diagnostic approach. We present a conceptual springs ecosystem model that clarifies the central role of geomorphology in springs ecosystem development, function, and typology. We present an illustrated dichotomous key to terrestrial (non-marine) springs ecosystem types and subtypes, and describe those types. We identify representative reference sites, although data limitations presently preclude selection of continentally or globally representative reference springs of each type. We tested the classification key using data from 244 randomly selected springs of 13 types that were inventoried in western North America. The dichotomous key correctly identified springs type in 87.5% of the cases, with discrepancies primarily due to differentiation of primary vs. secondary typology, and insufficient inventory team training. Using that information, we identified sources of confusion and clarified the key. Among the types that required more detailed explanation were hypocrenes, springs in which groundwater is expressed through phreatophytic vegetation. Overall, springs biodiversity and ecosystem complexity are due, in part, to the co-occurrence of multiple intra-springs microhabitats. We describe microhabitats that are commonly associated with different springs types, reporting at least 13 microhabitats, each of which can support discrete biotic assemblages. Interdisciplinary agreement on basic classification is needed to enhance scientific understanding and stewardship of springs ecosystems, the loss and degradation of which constitute a global conservation crisis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2218
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • classification
  • conceptual model
  • dichotomous key
  • ecosystem
  • geomorphology
  • microhabitat
  • sphere of discharge
  • springs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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